A mi­gra­tion tale detox from Tu­nis

Kaouther Ben Ha­nia’s up­beat ‘Zaineb Hates the Snow’ de­fies the me­dia nar­ra­tive

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - ARTS & CULTURE - RE­VIEW By Jim Quilty

BEIRUT: Mi­gra­tion sto­ries fre­quently bob to the sur­face of this re­gion’s cin­ema. That said, it’s rare to find a film on de­ra­ci­na­tion with quite the en­er­getic verve of “Zaineb Hates the Snow.”

This fea­ture-length doc­u­men­tary by Tu­nisian-born Kaouther Ben Ha­nia in­tro­duces the au­di­ence to 9year-old Zaineb Khe­lifi, her mother Wi­dad and younger brother Haythem. Near at hand are Wi­j­dene Hamdi, a lit­tle girl of about Zaineb’s age, and her father Maher, a Mon­treal-based di­vorcé who reg­u­larly vis­its Tu­nis and – it’s soon re­vealed – has been qui­etly court­ing Wi­dad.

Over a six-year pe­riod, the film­maker and her cam­era re­visit the Khe­lifi and Hamdi fam­i­lies for a spell of shoot­ing ev­ery 18-to-24 months, doc­u­ment­ing the com­edy and pathos of loss, hope and am­biva­lence as Wi­dad and Maher first ne­go­ti­ate the cou­pling of their fam­i­lies, then re­lo­cate Zaineb and Haythem to snow­bound Mon­treal.

“Zaineb” has a candy-coated aes­thetic that may be off-putting to skep­ti­cal doc­u­men­tary fans – par­tic­u­larly given the trag­i­cally parochial turn that the story of refugee and la­bor mi­gra­tion to Europe and Amer­ica has taken since 2011.

Ben Ha­nia comes by this aes­thetic hon­estly, in­spired by the cam­era’s prox­im­ity to Zaineb, later Zaineb and Wi­j­dene, and the flo­res­cent pop-cul­ture hues with which pre­pubescent girls some­times sur­round them­selves.

It’s in­tro­duced with the open­ing cred­its and a mon­tage of dec­o­ra­tive hand-scrawled pages from what seem to be young Zaineb’s diary and school work­books. In Que be co is ac­cented voice over,Zai ne b in­tro­duces her­self .“I didn’t al­ways have this ac­cent,” she muses, “but life is full of sur­prises.”

Per­sonal tragedy isn’t ex­cluded from the frame. From a dis­creet dis­tance, the cam­era looks on as the Khe­li­fis visit the grave of Zaineb and Haythem’s father. The knock-on ef­fects of the father’s ab­sence – Zaineb’s up­beat dec­la­ra­tion that she takes af­ter her dad in ev­ery re­spect and in­her­ited noth­ing from Wi­dad, for in­stance, her un­will­ing­ness to share her mother with Maher and re­luc­tance to leave Tu­nis – is the sober bedrock of the film’s drama.

The story hinges on Zaineb and her growth from a ram­bunc­tious lit­tle girl and Tu­nisian pa­triot to a stat­uesque young woman in­vested in a more hy­brid iden­tity, but the film­maker works to make the cam­era’s glimpses of the in­di­vid­u­als in the Khe­lifi and Hamdi fam­i­lies more than car­i­ca­ture.

In Tu­nis, Zaineb con­fides to Ben Ha­nia that she’s aware that her mom takes late-night tele­phone calls from some man and that she some­times pre­tends to be sleep­ing along­side Wi­dad in or­der to lis­ten in on their con­ver­sa­tions.

The film im­me­di­ately leaps to one such noc­tur­nal chat, af­ter which a giddy Wi­dad con­fesses that, de­spite her best ef­forts to erect walls against hav­ing feel­ings for an­other man, Maher had won her over.

Later, in Canada, she com­pro­mises on her at­tach­ment to the hi­jab and aban­dons the head­scarf. “Is this ex­hi­bi­tion­ism?” her re­flec­tion says to the cam­era as she fid­dles with her hair in the bath­room mir­ror. “You bet it is.”

The cen­ter­piece of the film’s com­edy and drama, though, is Zaineb and Wi­j­dene’s re­la­tion­ship. In them the film finds a pair of at­trac­tive, highly per­for­ma­tive young­sters who both love the cam­era and are ac­cus­tomed to be­ing doted on by their re­spec­tive sin­gle par­ents. When the two fam­i­lies come to­gether in Mon­treal, they sud­denly share not only the same house but the same bed­room.

There’s no bet­ter recipe for sib­ling ri­valry and Ben Ha­nia deftly doc­u­ments the the­atri­cal hospi­tal­ity, the com­pe­ti­tion and the carv­ing-up of phys­i­cal and emo­tional ter­ri­to­ries be­tween them.

This ter­ri­to­ri­al­ity ex­presses it­self in un­ex­pected ways. It’s only af­ter Zaineb, Haythem and Wi­dad join the Hamdis in their Mon­treal home that Wi­j­dene learns that her father has re­mar­ried. She im­me­di­ately asks for per­mis­sion to ring her mother, who in­forms her that, yes, she’d been in­formed.

“So I’m the only one who didn’t know?” says the bereft Wi­j­dene, who then sets about writ­ing a let­ter of protest to her father.

“I can’t be­lieve you did this to me,” she reads aloud. “Every­one knew.”

“Say, ‘Even Haythem knew,’” Zaineb in­ter­jects.

“Even Haythem knew,” Wi­j­dene reads back.

“Zaineb Hates the Snow” had its world pre­miere at the 2016 Lo­carno film fes­ti­val and later that year won the Golden Tanit at the Carthage film fes­ti­val. The film en­joyed its Le­banon de­but this week at Ayyam Beirut al-Cine­maiyya, Beirut’s bi­en­nial fes­ti­val of Arab film.

Ben Ha­nia’s work has paired a witty and acer­bic eye with a gen­rebend­ing de­sire to mine the wide seam be­tween doc­u­men­tary and fic­tion film.

Her 2010 fea­ture de­but, “Imams go to School,” ex­plores the heart of French laicite. It fol­lows a hand­ful of ap­pren­tice imams at Paris’ Grand Mosque as they ful­fill the state’s re­quire­ment to study French sec­u­lar­ism at the only univer­sity that of­fers these classes – the Catholic one.

A fic­tion dis­guised as a doc­u­men­tary, Ben Ha­nia’s 2013 “Le Chal­lat de Tu­nis” sets out to in­ves­ti­gate the story of the no­to­ri­ous Tu­nis Slasher, who, in the days be­fore the rev­o­lu­tion, would at­tack the rear ends of fe­male pedestrians with a ra­zor. When the direc­tor (Ben Ha­nia) makes a cast­ing call to find some­one to play the slasher, a young man comes for­ward to say that he is “Le Chal­lat,” com­menc­ing a comic jour­ney through the pop­u­lar cul­ture of the Tu­nis pre­cariat.

With “Zaineb Hates the Snow” the film­maker re­turns to the fly-on­the-wall premise of “Imams,” but with a ma­tu­rity that makes the film­maker and her cam­era in­te­gral to the story.

The more strik­ing de­par­ture is her use of a longue-durée ap­proach to film­mak­ing.

The most-cel­e­brated ex­am­ple of this form is Michael Apted’s “Up Se­ries” – fol­low­ing a clutch of Bri­tish kids from “Seven Up!” 1964, to “49 Up,” 2005. More re­cently Amer­i­can in­die Richard Lin­klater made use of the form in his fic­tion “Boy­hood,” 2014, which crafts a fea­ture film from an in­ter­mit­tent 12-year-long shoot with the same core cast.

Com­par­ing Ben Ha­nia’s work with that of Lin­klater is not to de­ride it as de­riv­a­tive, but to note that this doc­u­men­tary pos­sesses the for­ward mo­men­tum of fic­tion – de­spite her de­ci­sion to side­step con­tex­tual mark­ers like Tu­nis’ 2011 rev­o­lu­tion or the on­go­ing mi­grant cri­sis.

The film that emerges from this six-year-long doc­u­men­tary shoot is a charm­ing and ef­fec­tive blend of ba­nal poignancy and emo­tional au­then­tic­ity. Placed along­side the pall of hu­man mis­ery seep­ing from re­cent jour­nal­is­tic and cin­e­matic treat­ments of refugee and eco­nomic mi­gra­tion to Europe (and the op­por­tunism of the Trump regime) Ben Ha­nia’s film seems in­con­gru­ously sunny. The in­con­gruity rests in its char­ac­ters and sto­ries not con­form­ing to pre­vail­ing jour­nal­is­tic and cin­e­matic de­pic­tions of ab­ject mis­ery and es­sen­tial cul­tural dif­fer­ence be­tween mi­grants and their host coun­tries.

“Zaineb Hates the Snow” doesn’t claim mi­gra­tion is a com­edy. It does sug­gest that hu­man sto­ries can be au­ton­o­mous of mur­der­ous, parochial pol­i­tics, that some­thing sweet can still be tasted amid the bit­ter­ness.

Ayyam Beirut al-Cine­maiyya con­tin­ues through March 24. See www.metropoliscin­ema.net.

Haythem Khe­lifi, Wi­j­dene Hamdi and Zaineb Khe­lifi watch younger ver­sions of them­selves in an early cut of Kaouther Ben Ha­nia’s “Zaineb Hates the Snow.”

Zaineb Khe­lifi in a scene from Kaouther Ben Ha­nia’s “Zaineb Hates the Snow.”

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